Call Someone Who Cares

Bank robbers are discovering how it feels to be robbed when they make a phone call from a prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America, a private company that today oversees a large share of the nation's prisons and jails.

Only collect calls can be made from their facility here, which currently has me in its clutches. A 15-minute phone call runs more than $8.

"That might not sound like much, but my wife is on welfare," says one inmate, who's being tried on a gun charge. "She loves me, and her and my kids need to hear from me, but in another way she dreads my phone calls."

The Dallas, Texas-based Evercom Systems, Inc. holds the phone monopoly for over 2,000 city, county, state and private prisons and jails. We're told that special companies are needed as intermediaries because phone calls must be recorded and some lines have to be blocked. At this joint, Evercom charges $3 for a connection and 35 cents a minute.

Another inmate, who just arrived here from the Shelby County Jail in Memphis, hears us complaining about the price of our phone calls and says we should count our blessings:

"Over at the jail on Poplar Street it costs 60 cents a minute," he says. So a 15-minute call is $15. You guys are getting off cheap."

A lifer just in from the Tennessee State Prison says prices are a little better there, but not much:

"The state of Tennessee uses Global Telelink. Their rates are a $1.43 for the hook-up and 18 cents a minute. I guess that's a bargain compared to this place. I know Tennessee gets 42 percent as its cut. There's no telling what CCA gets on theirs here."

Inmates here tell the same story time after time. The first several collect phone calls to a number go through without any problem. After that, Correctional Billing Services, a subsidiary of Evercom, has an automated service that repeatedly calls loved ones who have received those calls.

When a friend I call answers Evercom's robot calls she hears a recorded message that leads her through a lengthy phone tree. At the end of the tree, she's told it's "a courtesy call," but since she gets three or four of these calls a day, they're hardly courtesies to her. She's told that 75 percent of her phone credit has been used up, and unless payment confirmation is made, the line will be restricted.

When she calls the number she was given to straighten out the bill, it turns out that Evercom's operators are based in Canada. I wonder why? Are they sidestepping some American credit laws, or is this just another example of outsourcing greed? She's told by the Canadian operator that Correctional Billing Services should be paid through her local phone company, SBC, which is what she routinely does anyhow. My collect-call charges from prison are part of her regular SBC bill.

But because the turnaround time for Evercom to get its money from SBC is one to two months, and because that money comes to Evercom in a lump sum without individual accounts being specified, she needs to verify payment to Correctional Billing herself, divulging personal credit information, to avoid restrictions on her line.

"I really feel like Correctional Billing is taking advantage," she tells me with scarcely concealed anger. "I don't like giving out my personal information over the telephone. I've paid my bill, and now it's between SBC and Correctional Billing Services. It really bothers me that Evercom can block my line at their whim, even though my bill is paid and has never been in arrears. You're stuck in what sounds like a horrible place, and I want to hear on a regular basis that everything is OK. There's no reason I should be hounded by this corporation in order to do that."

Whether it's the "for profit" motivation in corrections or the "throw away the key" mentality, cons are being gouged in every possible way. And it's especially hurtful because most convicts and their families are among the poorest people in America.

The bad news for jail and prison inmates and their families is that because of the exorbitant cost, fewer collect calls are being made and there is less contact with support systems. The good news is that stamps cost only 37 cents. Those of us who didn't make any money on our crimes are dropping the phone and grabbing a pen.

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